‘Does the night sky seem darker than usual?’ The vampire hunter Blade sits beside me in his swimming trunks, looking up at the stars. His mouth is set, his shoulders tense. There’s a wistful glimpse in his eyes, and perhaps a hint of something deeper. We move closer. Ping. We’ve just gained +7 Friendship, a currency that will strengthen Blade’s vampiric attacks for the next time Hydra troops storm forward to attack us in battle against Lilith, the mother demon. In Marvel’s Midnight Suns, our brief sojourn by the lakeside might be the most valuable part of our tête-à-tête.
In a tale premised around XCOM inspirations and the tactical strategy talents of developer Firaxis, it’s also incredibly surprising. While the action of Midnight Suns is certainly hinged on tactical RPG features, it’s also an adventure where individual characters really matter, and where your relationship status can turn the tide of war. As much as it’s an XCOM-like, it’s also part dating sim, with a hint of edgy 1990s-era comic book goodness.
As with all good horror tales, Midnight Suns begins with a double resurrection. In the wake of the ancient dark lord Lilith arising from her slumber, Doctor Strange and Iron Man corral a group of supernaturally-powered heroes together to reconstitute the mythic Hunter – child of Lilith, and the last hero to banish her from the moral plane.
You are The Hunter – a fish out of water in a strange and unfathomable land. Your companions are an equally intriguing bunch: a man made of iron, a sorcerer supreme, a Ghost Rider (Robbie Reyes), Magik of the X-Men, Nico Minoru of The Runaways, the aforementioned Blade, and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers).
Later, your troupe is joined by other guest heroes, including Spider-Man, Captain America, and Wolverine. But in the early stages of the game – at least, the first six hours we played through as part of a major game preview – your original, core team is your entire world.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns: Combat and Levelling
You’d be forgiven for thinking, at first, that these heroes are merely furniture in your solo tale of revenge – as the game opens on meaty, engaging combat that demands your attention and quick thinking.
In bite-sized arenas, you’ll take on roving enemy groups using clever tactics and turn-based maneuvres in multiple rounds. These push the action forward, and illustrate the great tides of Lilith’s war. Some skirmishes have simple goals – defeat all enemies – while others are retrieval or protection missions.
They all share a common cadence. Enter the battle with three heroes (some optional, some required) and play battle cards as ‘actions’ to whittle down enemy health, and clear them off the map. With environmental detritus around, you can spend free actions to move and send enemies careening into danger – like electrical boxes, rocks, or into drop zones, which can eliminate them entirely.
Each hero has unique skills to deploy, and these determine the flow, speed, and strength of your output on the battlefield.
Action selection will be familiar to those who’ve jumped into the Firaxis XCOM franchise, or games inspired by it like the Mario + Rabbids franchise – it’s a matter of analysing the field, selecting your hero, choosing their action (deploying skills, attacks, healing, revival, or moving) and maximising your damage on the battlefield by making clever plays.
Once you spend time getting to know your heroes, you’ll also be able to better manipulate their abilities, and understand strengths and weaknesses. Ghost Rider, for example, has an impressive range thanks to his chain whip. Nico has randomised abilities, based on the power of the temperamental Staff of One. Blade can drain the blood from enemies, and has a range of rapid-fire ‘Quick’ attacks that don’t count against your total card plays.
Captain Marvel is a heavy hitter with photon-powered blast attacks. If, by chance, you draw her Photon Beam ability in an early turn – cards are drawn randomly from a set deck, which can be modified and strengthened outside of combat – you can take out whole swathes of enemies in a line, diminishing their overall power on the battlefield, or destroying them outright.
Read: Marvel’s Midnight Suns: Every playable hero confirmed so far
Each turn, you will need to build up ‘Heroism’ points by playing cards, but this mechanic largely serves to ensure play ramps up at a steady speed. You won’t be able to win your first turn, but with good card draws and a thoughtful array of abilities in each deck, your path to victory will become clearer.
As you learn more about these abilities, you’ll develop a long list of favourite characters – and you’ll later be able to choose who comes with you into battle. Core favourites that emerged in our time with the game included Blade, for his fast attacks and draining abilities, and Ghost Rider for his chain whip reach, and the ability to form drop-zones into hell (enemies kicked into these holes disintegrate on impact).
Combat mechanics maintain a satisfying balance of simplicity and complexity, with a range of choices available for players. On easier modes, your choices are less relevant – you can simply stomp through the battlefield, laying out cards, and unleashing massively high-powered moves. But on higher difficulties, you’ll need to make tough choices about card deployment, and when to strike.
Playing ability cards early on in battles can pave the way for a well-earned victory, but this must still be earned with patience and smart play. This flow is easily tapped from the opening game tutorial, although it takes much longer to master.
Bide time, play your cards right, and you can dish out some serious and cinematic punishment with each of your heroes’ impressive arsenals. As you learn more about each of your companions, this flow becomes even smoother – for multiple reasons.
Get by with help from your friends in Marvel’s Midnight Suns
Combat plays a major part in Midnight Suns, and pushes its tale of demon possession and global takeover forward well – but it’s in the game’s lower-key third-person mode that you’ll find the most depth and intrigue. After all, combat is driven by a cast of charming characters – and you’ll need to get to know them all before you can make a major impact.
When you’re not throwing down on miniature battlefields, you’ll spend your time in Marvel’s Midnight Suns controlling The Hunter – time-displaced, confused by modern technology, and just looking for a bit of human connection. From The Abbey, a central building that serves as a hub for battles and training, you’ll spend a significant chunk of time wandering through school-like halls, surrounding forests, and old Pagan worshipping sites, bonding with your new friends and learning more about the world of the occult.
Early on, you encounter witch Agatha Harkness, and set off on a sidequest to recover magical artefacts that will grant you more power. The more artefacts you find, the better your Occult Knowledge – and this can be used to create new capabilities, and to strengthen the offerings in the nearby Forge.
Away from the strange clutches of Agatha, you’ll have plenty of downtime to focus on core activities, including forging new action cards from discovered items, strengthening your powers (and the powers of your companions), discovering new spells and pathways in the Abbey, and sending your fellow heroes on secret missions.
You can also – and this might be the best part of the entire experience – go on cute dates with your companions. They are technically ‘Friendship’ activities that can help strengthen bonds on the battlefield, but spending time with Blade in your swimmers while he contemplates the state of the universe sounds pretty romantic to us.
If that’s not your speed, you can also go bird watching with your pals, or pick mushrooms together, or even go fishing.
In dialogue snippets between missions, you’ll learn how Robbie Reyes became bonded to his Spirit of Vengeance (a tale that is slightly altered from his comic origins). You’ll learn that Magik is rather prickly, and will often take umbrage with even the more reasonable dialogue choices – she’s a tough nut to crack, and will require delicacy to befriend.
You’ll also learn more about how Nico split from the Runaways – she and Chase had a disagreement and parted ways, Molly went to live at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters – and find out more about why your mother-figure Caretaker (Sara, first introduced in Jason Aaron’s iconic run on Ghost Rider) has closed herself off from the world.
In quieter moments, Marvel’s Midnights Suns reveals itself to be an introspective tale. It’s got a real sense of brooding that feels appropriate, given it’s based on one of the moodiest comic teams of the 1990s. With missions segmented into small chunks, and the game frequently encouraging you to explore the Abbey grounds and get to know your new friends, there’s as much time devoted to strengthening your combat skills as there is to watching birds, and thinking about the meaning of life.
Your companions are well-rounded people, and the more you get to know them, the more their inner strength is revealed. Hanging out with them frequently can earn you more cards or Friendship points, and these directly benefit you in tight battle spots. Each activity makes your team more coherent, and means every narrative beat is backed by higher stakes.
When you finally chip away at Blade’s tough exterior, getting to know him in those quieter moments beside the lake, or beneath a canopy of trees, you’re rewarded with more measured dialogue, and secrets that then feed back into the main story, and each individual quest.
It also makes you feel terribly bad when your battlefield play fails, and you wind up sacrificing a team mate to pull off a winning play.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is full of surprises
It’s fair to say Marvel’s Midnight Suns has a very surprising devotion to character and world-building, given so much of the marketing for the game has so far focussed on its combat and more cinematic showings. But while unexpected, this combat and friendship system was a surprising boon to the action. Spending so much time with individual heroes, and on understanding their strengths, aids combat massively – on a technical and a personal level.
The quiet hours you’ll spend watching movies with your companions, learning about the modern world, and traipsing through twisting back stories are wonderful – and when those quieter moments need punches of action and flash, you can dive into deeper tactical missions for snappier, action-first gameplay.
It’s a heady mix, and one that makes Marvel’s Midnight Suns a wonderfully strange and impactful brew of
We’ll have more thoughts on Marvel’s Midnight Suns in December. Stay tuned for a full game review.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns launches for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and Windows PC on 2 December 2022.
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